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Contributor: Jane Kariuki (Panos, Kenya)
Tobacco cultivation ‘Threatens Food Security in Kenya’

When the British American Tobacco Company, one of the world’s leading cigarette multinationals, made its coveted entry into Kenya in 1907 few could have predicted that it would be facing charges of endangering the country’s food security some 90 years later. But that is precisely the allegation BAT faces today along with others in the tobacco industry.
The largest agro-based company in Kenya today, BAT contracts 17,500 small-scale farmers to cultivate tobacco over an estimated 15,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land. But some of them are switching to food crops, complaining that growing tobacco requires intensive labour and close care for long periods and that the earnings are low. They say they neither have the time to grow traditional food crops - like maize, beans, sorghum, cassava, and sweet potatoes - nor do they earn enough to buy sufficient food for the family.
“After all the work, I was still unable to make ends meet,” says George Onyango, a farmer in Migori district in western Kenya. Onyango has recently abandoned tobacco for maize on his 1.25-hectare land. He says his annual income has mushroomed from about 8,000 shillings ($133) from a single tobacco crop to a tidy 60,000 shillings ($1,000) from two harvests of maize a year. Not only is his work less tedious now, says the father of four, “but I can feed my family and sell of some of the maize to pay school fees.”
The tobacco farmer’s year begins with the preparation of seedbeds around February. BAT hands out the seeds free, but most farm inputs like chemicals and fertilisers come as loans. Constant watering, weeding and ridging is followed by harvesting in July. That’s not the end of it - curing takes time, not least because wood is becoming rarer in tobacco-growing areas, forcing farmers to walk longer distances each time around. Farmers then have to inspect the tobacco leaf by leaf before hauling it all off for weighing. As Awino, another Migori farmer pointed out, “In the tobacco season we have a lot of work and we have little time to cook for our children. We buy our maize from the town.” This explains why the tobacco cultivation season from February to August sometimes sees Awino’s two teenage sons skip school to help her with housework. For her pains, Awino makes about 5,000 shillings ($83) after the multinational has recovered its loan. She says she is now considering switching to sugarcane, also a cash crop.
It is not until July that most farmers can take a break from tobacco and start cultivating food crops in time for the short November rains. But the problem for Kenya is that just one season of maize does not produce enough to feed its population of 30 million. The country needs two harvests in most areas to produce the needed three million tonnes. As a result, Kenya was forced to import maize from neighbouring countries in 1997.
It is evident to a visitor to Migori that, despite the tobacco money, cases of malnutrition in children are high and accommodation is basic. A survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund bears out the impression - it says 52 percent of children in Migori district either suffer from chronic or acute under-nutrition or are under-weight.
As pointed out in a 1994 study conducted by John Nkuchia for the University of Michigan School of Public Health, tobacco has changed little materially for farmers - it may have even lowered incomes. The paper, presented at the Ninth World Conference on Tobacco and Health in Paris, suggests that food production in the tobacco-growing districts of Kenya has decreased as farmers have shifted from food crops to tobacco.
Using figures extracted from the Kenyan Central Bureau of Statistics and ‘the industry’s annual reports,’ Nkuchia estimated that the number of farmers contracted by BAT increased by 67 percent from 7,000 in 1972 to 11,000 in 1991, and by 36 percent from 1991 to 1993. Alongside, the land under tobacco grew rapidly.
At this rate, he wrote in Milking the Last Drop: A Case of the Tobacco Industry in Kenya, “the number of farmers growing tobacco will nearly double by 2010.” And that, he feared, would double the amount of land used for tobacco cultivation at the expense of food crops.
Whether BAT is to blame for the suggested bleak scenario is a matter of opinion. The company strongly denies endangering food security. It also denies advising farmers to keep aside one or two hectares of land for tobacco as Nkuchia claims. “Farmers grow their tobacco on any size of land they want - we do not specify for them the size of land to be used on tobacco,” Keli Kiilu, a BAT spokesperson said.
But the comments of farmers such as Onyango and Awino appear to support Nkuchia’s argument that net income from tobacco is less than from food crops.
There is, however, one important distinction: Nkuchia’s evidence was gathered from Meru district in Eastern Kenya. He said that a visit to Migori district failed to provide any evidence that farmers there were switching from tobacco to food cultivation. But the interviews by Panos Features show some Migori farmers may now be following the Meru example.
Kenyan government literature discussing the problem of under-nutrition in Migori district, admits that people in the district have “....insufficient powers to purchase the right foods.” BAT on the other hand argues that tobacco farmers have fared well under it. It says BAT farmers earned 672 million shillings ($11.2 million) in 1997, while the previous year’s earnings topped 819 million shillings ($13.6 million).
Kiilu also points out that increased tobacco production has generated ancillary employment in distribution, marketing and retailing. BAT cigarettes are sold through 49 distributors, 1,000 stockists or wholesalers and at least 40,000 retailers. All told, more than a million Kenyans derive their livelihood from BAT. And the company prides itself in supporting the government through taxes and rural development programmes such as tree planting.
Indeed, there are many farmers who like working for BAT and even cultivate tobacco out of season, which is prohibited by law. But the case of Onyango suggests that the profits made by BAT are not trickling down to the small farmer. This is an irony because small farmers are the backbone of agriculture, which makes up the largest portion of Kenya’s economy, accounting for some 29 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.
As with many developing countries around the world, Kenya is increasingly shifting toward export-driven cash crops such as tea, coffee and tobacco to offset an external debt which by 1985 had reached 7.4 billion dollars. Tobacco is Kenya’s major foreign exchange earner - in 1997 BAT alone earned a record 906 million shillings ($15.4 million) in foreign exchange. Tobacco, however, is not the only cash crop causing problems to small farmers. In sugarcane growing areas like Bungoma district in western Kenya, there are similar reports of farmers who earn as little as 10,000 shillings ($166) per acre of land, toiling with their families all year round on a crop that also leaves them with little time to grow food.
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